Mention the author Nabokov, and most people’s response will be, “Didn’t he write Lolita?” While he did indeed write Lolita, the story of Humbert Humbert and his perverse fantasies, which attained almost cult status, the novel that actually brought him to attention in the United States was the novel, Pnin. If you solve crosswords on a regular basis, you have probably come across this clue more than once – four words for a Nabokov novel? Has to be Pnin.
Unlike Humbert Humbert of Lolita, who is described as handsome and urbane, Pnin is a bald, frumpy college professor. He is a Russian immigrant who teaches at Waindell College, which is believed to represent either Cornell or Wellesley College – both institutions at which Nabokov taught.
The story begins with Pnin on a train when he realizes he is headed in the wrong direction. In the confusion and melee during his travel, he has a slight heart attack, loses consciousness and in his memory travels back to his earliest days in Russia, recalling his mother, the Revolution, and other painful memories.
Subsequent episodes in the book reveal his awkwardness with his students and colleagues who consider his old-fashioned Russian and behavior out of place. He is brilliant, but his bumbling English does not always get this across to others. He does befriend his ex-wife’s son, Victor, treating him with respect that he does not often experience.
Other episodes reveal more of Pnin’s background, including his tragic loss of his love, Mira Belochkin, who was Jewish and incarcerated at Buchenwald concentration camp. During this story, it is revealed who is the actual narrator of the novel – a sometime friend of Pnin.
Some believe this book to be somewhat autobiographical as Nabokov was a college professor and his wife was also Jewish. Others contrast the character of Pnin with Humbert as being opposite in almost every respect. While Lolita achieved even greater success than Pnin, it was still this novel that brought Nabokov to attention. Flannery O’Connor, the well-known Southern writer, was a huge favorite of Pnin, even writing a blurb for the Vintage edition.
Nickname for Baltimore
This one had me stumped. After all, how many cities in the United States have nicknames – dozens! The Big Apple, The Windy City, Cradle of Liberty, The Emerald City, and so on, but Baltimore? Of course, like many nicknames, the actual source of Baltimore’s nickname, Charm City, has been a topic of debate.
Back in 1995, a writer for the New York Times, who wrote an article about travels to Baltimore stated that H. L. Mencken called Baltimore ‘Charm City’. Well, in fact, H. L. Mencken did live in Baltimore, but the nickname ‘Charm City’ was created in 1975 and Mencken died in 1956. Oops!
Its origins were in the desperate need to reform Baltimore’s image – back in 1975, destruction not construction was the norm, and Baltimore’s reputation had little good associated with it. Mark Kram, a writer for Sports Illustrated, said that “Baltimore is an anonymous city, even to those who live there, a city that draws a laugh even from Philadelphia, a sneer from Washington . . . A Loser’s Town.” Ouch!
An advertising firm was hired to promote the beleaguered city, and it was this group that created the slogan, “Charm City”. Ads were run, disk jockeys were encouraged to create music. Even with all the hoopla, the plan overall was a flop. This was long before Baltimore had the Harborplace, the Maryland Science Center and the Aquarium. Back in 1975, there simply was not enough momentum to get the nickname into the public arena and stay there. In any case, it definitely was not Mencken who coined the phrase.